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Air Force achieves drone fighter jet first with F-16 Fighting Falcon

  • Sept. 19, 2013: Boeing and the U.S. Air Force completed the first unmanned QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target flight at Tyndall Air Force Base, demonstrating the next generation of combat training and testing.U.S. Air Force / Master Sergeant J. Scott Wilcox

  • Sept. 19, 2013: Boeing and the U.S. Air Force completed the first unmanned QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target flight at Tyndall Air Force Base, demonstrating the next generation of combat training and testing.U.S. Air Force / Staff Sergeant Javier Cruz

Drone fighter jet squadrons may be hitting the skies in a not so distant future.

Boeing announced this week the successful first test flight of an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet modified with unmanned control technology -- essentially turning it into a drone.

The QF-16 program takes retired F-16 jets and turns them into drones to work as advanced aerial targets in fighter jet pilot training. Without a pilot in the cockpit, Boeing's fighter jet took off by itself, flew from a Florida base to the Gulf of Mexico at supersonic speeds, and then landed itself.

During the test mission it flew at an altitude of 40,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.47, or 1,119 miles per hour. In spite of the empty cockpit, this Fighting Falcon demonstrated a series of combat maneuvers to evade attack by enemy aircraft and missile lock-ons.

From a ground control station at Tyndall Air Force base in Florida, two U.S. Air Force test pilots directed the fighter jet to complete its first unmanned flight. Two manned planes followed it and ensured the mission remained safe.

F-16s are approximate 50 feet long, have a nearly 33-foot wingspan and can travel at Mach 2 -- a whopping 1,500 mph. This sort of fighter has a range of 1,740 nautical miles.

Turning fighter jets into drones
To create the next generation of aerial combat training targets, Boeing took retired fighter jets and retrofitted them with drone tech, also know as unmanned aircraft control tech.

Boeing retrieved them from Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona where they’d be in storage for more than a decade, restored them for flight and turned them into full-scale, remote-controlled manned and unmanned aerial targets.

U.S. pilots can now use the sooped up jets to train against as realistic enemy aircraft. Without a human in the cockpit, pilots can practice firing on and neutralizing enemy aircraft. 

Boeing says the QF-16s can easily shift between unmanned and manned mode. This sort of technology paves the way for fighters than can fly themselves autonomously – and for a sort of robot fighter jet squadron.

Thus far Boeing has adapted six F-16 to become QF-16s and the U.S. military will use some of them in live fire tests. The current plan is to deliver these into military service in 2015.

The QF-16 will replace the Vietnam fighter F-4 Phantom. The U.S. Air Force similarly adapted this aircraft to fly without a pilot into the QF-4 aircraft for target practice.

Earlier this year in July, also at Tyndall Air Force Base, a QF-4 full-scale aerial target drone crashed on the drone runway during take-off. The local area was closed off because the drone fighter jet carried a self-destruct charge powered by a battery with a twenty-four hour life.

Charges are built into drones to destroy the aircraft should they, say, diverge from the pre-approved flight plan.

The QF-4s are used a target drones by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Holloman and at Tyndall Air Force Base.

During Combat Archer, an air-to-air weapons system evaluation program, Q-4s are flown for pilot air combat training and to practice targeting and firing missiles at the drone aircraft.

Once the QF-16s roll into service, they will give pilots targets that are similar to the jet performance they will fly against in operations. Pilots will be able to use them to test newly developed weapons as well.

What’s next?
After this first successful test, there will be more operational evaluations. A live fire test at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M is in the pipeline.

Eventually, the QF-16s will be flown for the Navy, Army and Air Force for weapons testing and challenging pilots in training.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.